Reader’s Journal: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About the Harry Quebert AffairNothing is better than getting lost in a good book. You’re reading along, completely absorbed, as the time passes. It must be hours, you think. You must be at least halfway through! And then you start to worry about the end, because you’re having such a good time with this book. It’s clever! It’s witty! You want to know what happens, but then at the same time you don’t because then it will all be over and you’ll have to pick out a new book and hope it’s at least half as engaging as this one.

And then you glance down at the little progress bar on your e-reader and see that you are actually only 28% through the book, and you feel a slight sense of unease. You could have sworn that you were much further along, because really how can the author keep this conceit (It’s clever! But it’s still a conceit!) going? Maybe you swiped something accidentally and it knocked your progress back. So you check. And the answer is no: you really are only 28% into this book. And the remaining 72% will feel like an eternity. It will feel like one of those runs where you are doing it just to get it done. No joy. No endorphins. No personal best. Just slogging straight through to the end.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. When I first heard about it this past summer, the plot sounded completely compelling: It’s 2008, and Marcus Goldman is a wunderkind novelist whose first book was a huge commercial success. But Marcus has a big problem: His second book is due, and he hasn’t written a word. He has writer’s block. Desperate for help, Marcus turns to his mentor, Harry Quebert, a writer whose novel, The Origins of Evil, published in 1975, has become an American classic, one of the finest love stories ever told.

Marcus goes to see Harry at his home in New Hampshire. While he’s there he makes a curious discovery about The Origins of Evil after snooping through some of Harry’s things, which is that the book is based on a love affair that Harry—in his early 30s in 1975—had with a 15-year-old girl named Nola Kellergan. Nola is somewhat famous in her own right, because in August of 1975 she disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was never found. Still unable to write, Marcus has returned, dejected, to New York when he hears the news that Harry has been arrested for Nola’s murder. Her body was found in his yard when landscapers were trying to plant some hydrangeas. The original manuscript of The Origins of Evil is also found in a leather satchel next to the body, with the inscription “Goodbye, my darling Nola” on the cover page. Marcus rushes to Harry’s side. Harry declares his innocence–at least when t comes to murder. Marcus decides that he will help Harry by discovering who actually killed Nola. And—here’s the kicker—along the way he’s persuaded by his agent, his publisher, and even Harry himself to write the story—the truth about the Harry Quebert affair.

This novel has a bit of everything most of us bookish types enjoy: it’s a book about books, about writing. It’s clever and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It has a terrific setting (I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist books set in New England). But. The dialog is wooden. The characters are cliché. The metaphors are tired. Even the references (Harry Quebert/Humbert Humbert, Nola/Lola/Lolita) are kind of, well…yawn. And it just goes on. And on. And on. It twists. It twists again. And then—wait for it—another twist. Some of these twists you see coming from a thousand miles away, while others are just barely believable.

The author, Joel Dicker, is Swiss, and the book (originally written in French) was translated into English for an American audience (after becoming a blockbuster in Europe), so about halfway through the book I started to convince myself that Dicker was actually messing with the whole idea of the American novel—that there was some sort of inside joke and I wasn’t getting it. After I finished the book, I decided to look at some reviews to see if they would tell me what I was missing. Apparently, the answer is NOTHING. From The New Yorker:

“The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.” The fact that there’s a novel within a novel about the author of another novel isn’t handled with any sort of postmodern panache, and neither are the literary allusions to Roth and Mailer—a food-obsessed Jewish mother, boxing matches—which might actually just be clichéd writing. It lacks the psychological precision of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and the sentence-level skill of Donna Tartt’s novels (both of which come to mind as similarly ambitious, plot-thick works). It’s hard to tell whether the novel is as wooden in the original French, but I’m told that it is.”

Exactly. I wish I could tell you this book raises interesting questions about authenticity, debut author hype, the relationship between teacher and student, the publishing world’s willingness to sell out anyone for a buck, or the nature of “truth” in true crime investigations and narratives (think “Serial”), but I can’t. It could have raised those questions, but ultimately, it doesn’t. Too bad.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Interesting! I loved this book. Yes, there were problems with it (I agree with the ones you mention) but I was willing to overlook these as I was so gripped to the plot. I loved all the twists and enjoyed working out what was going on. It is interesting to see the cultural divide in the reviews. Everyone in Europe seems to love it; whilst I haven’t seen one positive review from the US. I think someone should do some analysis on exactly why that is!

  2. Jackie, I know this was one of your favorites a few years ago, and generally you and I agree on books. I actually did a fair amount of research after I read it to see if I was missing something. It’s true that some Europe reviews were more positive, but for example, The Guardian gave it only an okay review: “So many critics seem to have been knocked on their behinds by Dicker’s novel that I can’t be sure I’m not missing something in filing what you might call a minority report. They see a masterpiece; I see a completely ordinary, amiably cartoonish and well aerated page-turner that does nothing interesting in literary terms at all.”

    The Telegraph loved it, and The Independent mostly liked it but had a few quibbles: “I wondered if these Coelho-like moments sounded better in French, but the insight that “L’amour c’est très compliqué” is unhelpful in any language. We don’t need any of this precious self-regarding nonsense and an editor less enamoured with a desire to patronise the reader would have cut the lot.”

    Honestly, my guess is that by the time the book got to America, and we’d all heard mostly amazing things about it, it was bound to be a bit of a let down. It was good–I gave it three out of five stars on Goodreads–and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, but it wasn’t as good as I expected it to be. I wonder if I would have liked it better without having read all those great reviews first!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s